Since our flock is a mix of heritage breeds we frequently have a hen go broody. I initially encouraged broodiness but the hens that went broody didn’t stay dedicated to family life and abandoned their eggs before it was time. So I decided it wasn’t worth the effort and incubated the eggs myself for years.
When we moved to the sawmill we had a hen disappear. I figured she was snagged by a stray dog or some other predator. Weeks passed and I forgot all about the missing hen. One day while going out for chores I noticed the triumphant return of the hen who had successfully hatched out some chicks somewhere in the bush. That was impressive, and it energized me to give broody hens another try.
Last year we had four hens go broody at the same time. Two successfully hatched out some chicks, one gave up and the last hen who didn’t successfully hatch any herself claimed any errant chick the two successful mothers let out of their sight. It was a shared job of mothering between those three hens.
With our poor luck on hatching goose eggs we have decided to give broody hens a try for that job next year. In order to encourage broodiness in our hens we have allowed seven hens to sit on clutches of eggs so far this year. With the increased amount of poultry wondering the farm we have bought some leg bands and will be banding many of our birds for identification. Successful broody hens get a special pink leg band to identify their mothering abilities, and to give their genetics increased importance when we hatch eggs ourselves.
We have also bought eight Silky chicks in the hopes that they will live up to their reputation as great mothers. We have not had Silky chickens before as personally I considered them ugly and not very utilitarian, but I try to keep an open mind and will overlook the poor appearance (My Opinion) if they can become our natural incubators.
Broody hens will stop laying eggs while they concentrate on their mothering duties. So if your ultimate goal is egg production you may be further ahead to incubate the eggs yourself. This is the very reason many breeds of chickens have had broodiness bred out, it isn’t a desirable trait for a commercial chicken.
- Using Broody hens will give you fewer eggs and fewer chicks vs an incubator. If your goal is as many chicks as possible an incubator will give you more chicks by far in the long haul.
- Some hens are not good mothers and chick losses can often be high, although that hasn’t been the case in our experience. We have very few losses, but I have heard of hens leading their chicks into bad situations or just not mothering them at all, or even worse killing the chicks. Many hens give up on a clutch of eggs early.
- Chicks from broody hens are not as tame as chicks you have taken care of. Our first group of chicks from the chicken who laid them in the bush were wild. Even after being caught as teenagers and locked in a chicken tractor they never were as tame as our other chickens. Knowing this was a possibility we removed the next group of chicks that were hatched from their mothers when they were fully feathered, but not too old. We placed them in with the rabbits, which for some reason tames them. We are not sure of the reason, but it does work. Our theories are that having another species in close contact makes them less wild, or that maybe the smaller cage gives them nowhere to go when we feed and water them, and having that close contact tames them.
The hen takes over care of the chicks for the most part. It is nice setting back and letting a hen do all the work. I am not sure what the hens feed the chicks, but we don’t provide any starter and the chicks grow faster than incubated chicks.
- Hens are often more successful at hatching eggs, and the chicks seem more robust and get a head start with a doting hen. It is amazing that a hen can take such good care of a chick outside. With no heat lamps or other artificial aids the mother hen does an awesome job.
- The chicks are usually accepted into the flock if they are born there. Broody hens are encouraged in the Ultimate Chicken tractor where they have their choice of eight nest boxes. When the chicks hatch the rest of the flock seems to accept them. This is amazing considering what happens to any other chicken that you try to introduce into the flock. In our books this is a big plus, although it may not always work.
- Broody hens can be used to hatch more valuable eggs. That is one of our goals. From turkey eggs to goose eggs our hens are going to have some strange looking chicks.
- Chicks will learn from their mother and grow up to become a more rounded chicken.
There are several ways to encourage broodiness. Having a good nesting area with enough room from other chickens is essential. If there isn’t enough nest boxes, or if there are crowded conditions you probably will not have much luck.
Gatherings of eggs also encourage broodiness. To encourage our hens to become broody I designated two of the nest boxes to be egg collectors. The hens see the eggs and it encourages them to sit on them. I have used rubber eggs to do the job of the real eggs that way I don’t lose the eggs if nobody decides to sit on them. This has worked very well this year.
A clutch of eggs just waiting to be incubated encourages broodiness more than anything I have tried. I prefer to use fake eggs to get the ball rolling, once I have a dedicated hen incubator I can remove the fake eggs and replace them with real eggs, but be ready to get pecked. Many people use golf balls, I tried that but my chickens were not fooled. Many hobby stores carry realistic fake eggs and that is the route I went. Some of these fake eggs are so well done I have to double check when gathering eggs at times.
Having the nest in a good location is also essential. You don’t want the hen to be disturbed to much, or have to defend against other critters or chickens. Having enough nest boxes to allow your other chickens to lay while giving the broody hen her needed space keeps everything going smoothly.
While the mother hen usually does well, mother doesn’t always know best. I have had many mother hens stay outside in the rain with her chicks. Most of the time they make it, but sometimes you don’t have that luck. Chicks can also make some poor choices, and often end up away from their mother and that isn’t a safe condition. It is a good idea to keep a close eye on the chicken family to keep everything going smoothly.
Other things to keep an eye on are other farm animals. My turkeys while free ranging with the chickens decided to switch houses and went from their chicken tractor to a tractor that had chicks. I didn’t think anything of it and locked the tractors for the night. The turkeys killed all the chicks. Guineas are another concern when chicks are present. Guineas seem to have a Napoleon complex going and will attack chicks for no reason. Other chickens may occasionally peck a chick to keep it in line or show dominance, but if they are part of the same flock I have never had a chicken kill a chick. That doesn’t seem to work with turkeys or guineas.
My Muscovy ducks however have not caused a problem and I had a banty chicken and a Muscovy duck incubate side by side. The chicken was incubating duck eggs along with the duck, when they hatched they shared mothering duties and I introduced some incubator hatched chicks during the process.
I have had mixed results introducing incubator hatched chicks to broody mother hens. The best strategy I have found is to introduce chicks several hours after sunset to a hen who has eggs hatching and only introduce younger chicks so they are close to the same size as the just hatched chicks. It seems to be up to the mother, as some hens will mother anything, others will kill anything that isn’t the chicks they hatched. As long as it hatches under the hen it seems to be accepted, even if it is a different breed.
I have been very happy with the simple plastic leg bands I bought from a seller on Ebay. They come in several colors and it is the best way to mark a chicken I have found. The bands are split in the middle so they can be attached to an older bird. I use to know every bird, a few I still know by sight, but when you get a couple hundred birds you need a way to identify them. You can get 100 bands for $9.79 including shipping. I bought mine from seller yaowenjie112269123.